CINCINNATI (AP) _ The Kroger Co.'s earnings increased in the fourth quarter and for all of 1999 despite costs of absorbing the Fred Meyer Inc. supermarket group.

The nation's largest retail grocer said Thursday it earned $246 million or 29 cents per share, in the three months ended Jan. 29, up from $234 million or 28 cents a year earlier.

But its earnings would have been 39 cents a share if the $105 million in costs of merging with Fred Meyer were excluded.

That was a penny a share higher than the 38 cents anticipated by analysts surveyed by First Call/Thomson Financial.

Kroger shares fell 56 1/4 cents to $14.81 1/4 in trading at 4:30 p.m. on the New York Stock Exchange.

Quarterly sales were $11.24 billion, up slightly from $11.2 billion for the final quarter of 1998.

For all of 1999, Kroger earned $628 million or 73 cents per share, compared with $237 million and 28 cents a year earlier. Sales for 1999 totaled $45.35 billion, up from $43.1 billion.

Kroger said its estimated savings in operating costs as a result of combining with Fred Meyer totaled $160 million for fiscal 1999, better than the company's projection of $155 million. Kroger expects those savings to total $260 million in fiscal 2000, $345 million in fiscal 2001 and $360 million in fiscal 2002.

The company's pharmacy sales have more than doubled in the past five years and Kroger now operates 1,500 pharmacies, management said.

The company operates more than 2,300 supermarkets and multi-department stores in 31 states under names including Kroger, Fred Meyer, Ralphs, Smith's, King Soopers, Dillon, Fry's, Food 4 Less and Quality Food Centers. Kroger also operates 796 convenience stores, 389 fine jewelry stores and 42 food processing plants.